The House approved legislation Wednesday calling for a new state registry aimed at preventing caretakers found to have abused individuals with disabilities under their watch from being hired with additional providers.
The 154-0 vote was unanimous for "Nicky's Law," a proposal closely resembling a bill the Senate approved in October and named after a non-verbal young man with autism who was abused by his caretaker.
Under the bills, the state Disabled Persons Protection Commission would be required to create a confidential registry listing any care providers against whom the commission substantiated a claim of abuse or financial extortion. Both the commission and employers would need to check the list before any hiring, and individuals listed could not work with individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities.
Advocates have been pushing for the creation of a registry since at least the 2017-2018 lawmaking session, warning that abusers remain in the industry with their current workplaces often unaware of any past issues.
"We all wish that this legislation were not necessary, but clearly, it is, and it goes to the heart of one of our primary responsibilities as lawmakers, that being to protect those who cannot protect themselves," said Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, who filed the original House legislation.
Rep. Kay Khan, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said Wednesday that more than 13,000 of the 20,000-plus calls to the DPPC hotline in fiscal year 2019 were to report sexual, emotional or physical abuse against those with disabilities.
About 2,200 of those cases were referred to prosecutors, she said, but charges were not filed in most. The number of calls has also increased 10 percent since July 2019.
The Senate approved a similar bill last session, but it did not cross the finish line in the House amid concerns over due process rights for the accused. Lawmakers say they resolved those issues in the latest version of the bill.
"There were those who had a strong question relative to making sure there was due process involved for some of the employees who may be accused of this heinous crime," House Speaker Robert DeLeo told reporters prior to the vote. "I think after a long period of time talking to a number of interested parties, I think we were able to do that."
Accused caregivers would receive notice and be given an opportunity to appeal, Khan said, and their names would only be added to the registry if the finding is upheld. After five years on the registry, individuals who are listed on the registry can petition for removal of their name if they demonstrate a preponderance of evidence that it is no longer in the public interest to prevent their work as a provider.
Twenty-six other states have a caretaker abuse registry, Khan said.
SEIU 509, a union representing human service providers, praised the House for legislation that "strengthens protections for the most vulnerable among us while ensuring due process for care providers."
"Our communities are strongest when all of us are protected," SEIU 509 Chapter President of Private Sector Human Services Orlando Pena said in a press release. "This legislation gives our members and the families they serve the peace of mind that there is an established path to justice in the event of an accusation of abuse or neglect."
The House Ways and Means Committee offered an amendment replacing the text of the bill before its unanimous passage; a committee spokesman said Wednesday that the differences between the House and Senate versions are mostly technical in nature but did not elaborate further.
If the branches can agree on a consensus bill, lawmakers could then take final votes to send the bill to Gov. Charlie Baker.